Rev Mirko Lipski-Reinhardt
Rev Mirko Lipski-Reinhardt is the pastor of the Protestant Church in Hünxe, Germany. Originally from the Western part of Germany, he studied theology in Wuppertal, Oslo, and Berlin. Being a pastor is not unusual in Mirko’s family as his mother started that tradition. Mirko attributes his faith and his belief to his grandmother and grandfather. He has developed a project on Instagram focusing on religion, society, and everyday life, which was recognized with a special media award. In addition to his general work in the congregation, Mirko is also responsible for the public relation and social media work of his church.
The center of our parish life are our two churches:
One of the churches is about 800 years old, older than Martin Luther’s Reformation, which the Hünxe parish joined in 1562.
The other church is a 30-year old parish center. That is to say that the church is not only used for worship. The hall was also planned as a central point for the parish, and choir practices or celebrations take place there. Thus, the year before last we had the rural women’s Christmas celebration in the space where on Sundays we pray and sing together. Coffee and cake were placed on long tables where otherwise there are rows of chairs. Fellowship in the house of God, of which the altar in the front part of the building was a reminder. And of course we began the celebration with a short prayer, and we ended with a blessing.
Many people in Germany often prefer this form of fellowship in the parish to the Sunday church service. It is a typical way in which they feel they belong to the parish. For them, it is important to have the church in the village, but they rarely come to the service on Sunday.
With this example, I want to show that the Covid-pandemic has brought a double break in the “church of the people”.
Not only the church services and the celebration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper were dropped with the lockdown, starting the middle of March; Bible and youth groups, choirs and afternoons for senior citizens were also dropped.
In our parishes it became quiet, too quiet.
At this point in time, I had been involved as pastor in Hünxe for five months. So I was pretty new in the parish when the Covid-pandemic began. In reality, I was still learning how my new parish worked, what its history was, what was important to the people there, what their ideas about community were.
Now, overnight, what was important was to find entirely different and new paths. Fortunately, I have a wonderful woman colleague who is involved with me as pastor of the parish.
After a short moment of shock, we decided together with the parish leadership (the presbyterium):
We don’t want to lose sight of the people who are at home in our parish, who spend free time here and are involved, and for whom the parish is important.
But we also want to use new paths to reach people who until now have felt only to a small extent or not at all that they belong to the parish/Church. We want to tell people in a different way about God, and we want to invite them to find their spiritual home in Christianity and in our parish.
And so we set out on the way. I would like to tell you about this way, about what we learned, about what went well and what didn’t go so well. And what in my opinion all this means for the future.
I. A new digital Beginning
About every ten years, the Protestant Church in Germany (EKD) publishes what is called “Surveys on Church Membership”. In these studies, church members and people with no denomination are asked about what has marked them and their attitudes toward the Church.
The studies look at how Protestant Christianity is perceived and why it is important to people to belong to a Protestant church community or why they have left the community.
It is interesting to note thereby that above all older people feel connected with the Church and take their Church membership for granted. In the 2012 survey, for example, among those who were under the age of 30, 9% indicated that they feel very connected with the Church, whereas 23% said that they don’t feel at all connected with it. In spite of very good and successful youth work, the Church as an institution thus has a problem where young people are concerned.
On the one hand, this could be because in the course of the break with tradition, the forms in which church services are held are no longer felt to be relevant.
On the other hand, it could be because the Church relied for a long time on traditional ways of communication and thereby missed out on new ways. A quotation that is often used as a caricature says: “We’ve always done it this way.”
But since March, it has no longer been as it always was.
Not in the church services, not in the groups and choirs, not in the meetings of the church leadership – overnight we had to become digital.
For meetings and administration, this worked surprisingly quickly; but the point here is the religious community and not administration. Thus my first observation:
Since March 2020, there has been an upward leap in Christian Church presence in the internet, especially in YouTube and in the social media. Blogs are written on questions concerning faith and life, online-prayer services are published, church services are streamed or celebrated on “hybrid” zoom.
A multi-colored diversity has come into being, which on the one hand speaks to the “forgotten generation” of younger Church members; on the other hand, it continues to be difficult to attract people who previously had not felt connected with the Church.
Nevertheless, the idea of Church changed among the village public, since we found ways of entering into communication which have long been taken for granted:
A profile of the parish, of the youth leader, the pastor in facebook and instagram is closer to life than the parish periodical that lands in the mailboxes once every three months.
Among young people, I noticed in our youth house that they take note of religious topics by subscribing to my pages and other ones; even if they would never come to an analogous church service on Sunday.
My generation of pastors, who are used to dealing with these media, generally has no difficulty with these changes; for older pastors this change was and is often difficult, as it turns some things upside down that were dear and cherished to the German Church, for:
- The digital Church is not bound to one Place
In the internet, by its very nature this is different. People can compare and look for what corresponds with their own personal taste.
And thus pastoral, spiritual and friendly contacts come about between people who would never get together in an analogous life situation. And this leads to a second reality:
- The digital Church is not bound to one single Denomination
And I as a Protestant pastor also discover: There are wonderful Catholic and Evangelical offers in the internet. This way, for example, I got to know Catholic priests whom I would never have met in “real life”. Some of these contacts turned into friendships, and these friendships enrich me not only personally, but also spiritually. The enlarged view over and beyond the boundaries of my own denomination is worthwhile.
So the digital Church has essentially marked the image of Church over the past few months, and by means of two examples, I would like to show how different this can look.
Ia. The Hünxe Parish in YouTube
Since March of last year, our parish has its own YouTube channel which we have used in various ways.
One main focus has been short prayer services, which we partly published every week: a short interpretation of a biblical verse that is relevant for the present, a piece of music, a blessing. Because the links were published in the local facebook groups, these services soon became known.
In March – shortly before the lockdown – the elections for the parish leadership (presbyterium) were held. In the spring, the newly elected presbyters – men and women – also introduced themselves to the parish by means of videos in YouTube.
The team for services for small children (Church Service for Children U3) produced short explanatory videos on religious topics (e.g. “Why do the bells ring?, and on Christmas Eve the night service took place livestream.
We also use the channel independently of religious topics for the competition “Hünxe – your Voice”, which could only take place digitally because of Covid security regulations. “Hünxe – your Voice” is a singing competition that has been organized by the Protestant youth of Hünxe over the past few years.
We as a parish have tried to maintain connection with the local community and to show that we “are here”.
Especially in the social network “Instagram”, church and Christian topics have played a larger role since the first lockdown. Many offers came about regionally and supraregionally, within our denomination and supradenominationally. One can ask critically whether these offers are seen and accepted by people who previously were not close to the Church or to Christian groups. But in any case, they create cohesion in the “bubble” and enable a (critical) exchange on faith topics.
Thus not only proclamation or prayer take place by means of the “instagram” medium, but also a debate on contents: the acceptance of LGBTIQ-people in the parishes, climate change, or social racism are among these.
During Advent 2020 for example, a partly controversial discussion took place in many profiles on Christian privileges when December is marked by the Christian preparation for Christmas. While feasts of other religions play no part or a subordinate one in public awareness. Here, Jewish, Muslim and atheist voices could also be heard.
Together with two women friends who are both also involved as pastors in the Protestant Church, I too took part in this digital new beginning. Since April 2020, we are running the instagram-blog @stadt.land-pfarramt. There, we shed light every week on a topic from the Church and society with three points of view. Each of us publishes a photograph and a text with the appropriate hashtag. One week in June, we had a gay, Black trans-pastor from the USA speak on our account, in which he described his perspective on the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. In November we even won the second prize in the Protestant Church of the Rhineland’s media prize for this work, and most recently we have become BasisBible-Influencers in the German Bible Society. This means that, together with other Christians, we are promoting a new German translation of the Bible into the language of our day.
The example of the instagram shows thus how the Christian-Western European view of “Faith Community” has changed over the past year. Much has moved to the digital; but for my Hünxe parish it was important not to lose sight of what is analogical and of the people who do not work with the internet.
II. Being analogical in the Crisis
How lucky that we can remain so connected in this pandemic. Modern technology makes it possible for us to maintain contact with one another along big stretches, so that in spite of limitations in contact and travel, a conference like JCM can take place.
But with all the happiness, we also observe over and over again that “digital togetherness” reaches its limitations as well. Certain religious/church rituals cannot take place only in a virtual or hybrid reality. Baptism (acceptance into the Christian Church) for example needs the water that is poured three times over the head of the person being baptized and the words that belong with this. It doesn’t work when the pastor, connected by zoom, is in one place and says the words, and one of the parents pours the water in another place; in the ritual, the sign and the deed belong inseparably together.
And what characterizes Church, not only in connection with rituals, is the personal contact between people.
This is why it is important to keep in mind the people who live without family and/or who don’t have access to digital media.
Over the past months, the parishes in Germany have tried not to lose sight of these people.
Since more than the average number of elderly people and people living alone accept the church services and social events in the parishes, these people in particular lose a lot.
In Hünxe, for example, we therefore sent out written prayer services on YouTube to people in our parish as supplements to the prayer services. We also made these texts available in our internet site so that families can for example print them for their grandmother at home.
Other parishes packed bags for special feasts like Easter or Christmas: church-service-to-go contains everything you need to celebrate the Christmas service at home: a short program, an interpretation of a biblical verse, a candle, a small cross…
Other parishes offer church services on the phone. If a person phones a particular number, he or she can listen to the Sunday sermon everywhere on every phone/cell phone.
In general, the phone has gained great significance.
My colleague and I regularly phone senior citizens from the parish, we listen by phone to worries, we pray together.
In addition, in my village we have made use of our church’s location at the market place. Between December 20 and January 10, a large poster hung from the church tower, visible for everyone. On this was written: “The Protestant parish wishes a happy Christmas and a blessed new year.”
These and other activities are good. However, according to its own self-understanding, Church is never there just for itself. Thus it was important to us to keep in mind the people who do not live locally but who still depend on our help and support. Normally, this happens by means of the collections, which is to say, the money collected during the church service. This money is not just for our own parish, but also for church and humanitarian purposes all over the world. Many of you probably know of “Brot für die Welt” (Bread for the World) of the Protestant Church in Germany.
In addition, my church unit Dinslaken, to which Hünxe belongs, is involved especially in helping refugees on the Greek island Lesbos. With the lockdown, with the “fear” of going to church, the church’s aid organizations have lost an essential source of income for the humanitarian help they give. But on the other hand, it has been observed that precisely during this time, our parish members perceive this help as important. Over the past six months, support for “Lesbos Solidarity” has grown incredibly. It was wonderful to see this.
And people also contributed as a matter of course over and over again and generously during the Covid crisis to an ecumenical fund in support of our sister Churches in Africa.
These experiences encouraged me in believing that in this crisis, many people (re-)discovered community.
III. The Phase of Disappointment and Fatigue
What I have said so far sounds very positive. And although the positive has been dominant, I don’t want to ignore the disappointments and fatigue. We too have experienced that many people have died of and with the virus. We too experience how the residents in homes for the elderly suffer from loneliness.
Among our people as well there are those who do not approve and support every decision.
This became obvious especially during the time before Christmas. Because Christmas, the feast of the birth of Jesus Christ, is a feast that is very emotional for many people. For me as well.
And Christmas Eve, the beginning of the Christmas feast, is for many Christians the day on which they take for granted that they go to a church service.
Christmas 2020, all the analogical church services in our parish and in the surrounding parishes were dropped.
This disappointed many people, especially also children who traditionally help to shape the service on Christmas Even with a nativity play.
Many families had hoped that with the Christmas services, at least a “remnant of normality” could be found. For all of us, having to disappoint them was a great disappointment. Perhaps this is why many people made use of our offer to see the Christmas tree in the church on Christmas Eve, while keeping their distance, and to light a candle. Everyone was disciplined in keeping the Covid rules. Nobody was infected.
Now, after a “Covid year” and especially after the “Covid Christmas”, we are noticing that we are tired:
tired of always having to re-think; tired of always having to re-plan. We are noticing how much we miss what is old in the new.
The community, the singing in the church service, the cup of coffee after the service, the others’ smiles.
How does the period of isolation change our ideas of faith community? I looked at this question in the light of how I as a Protestant pastor experienced the past year. If I now have to draw a conclusion, I can only do so provisionally.
Because the crisis is going to continue to accompany us, and the future will show how society and with it also faith communities will change. Sociologists say that many developments will be sped up, and in other areas, developments will be questioned and new ideas shared with one another as to how we can enable people, for whom religious language has become foreign, to get access to a faith community.
I don’t think that the idea of faith community has changed that much: faith communities are necessary as an active part of society, because while trusting in God/the Divine, they bring meaning into this often seemingly meaningless world; they therefore do not become speechless even in the time of pandemic.
Thank you very much.
 = a church that wishes to be attractive to as many different people as possible.
 Signs of God’s special presence.
 KMUV, 86.
 In English, the words for baptism are: “I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”
 Most Christian churches have what is called emergency baptism. This means that when there is life-threatening danger for the person to be baptized, every Christian may baptize. But in the isolation caused by the pandemic, there isn’t necessarily a life-threatening situation, so that generally baptism can be postponed.
 The nativity play is a short piece acted out during the church service; in it, the story of the birth of Jesus as told in the Bible is presented.
 The so-called church café, the cup of coffee or tea after the service, is an important meeting point in many Protestant parishes; at times it lasts longer than the actual church service.